Magnificent Seven Old West
Missing Pieces by The Neon Gang

Part 2 of 3 in the Pieces Series.

MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin, Chris, Seven

Warning: This story includes adult themes, including the threat (only) of rape and non-consensual sexual acts with the same and the opposite sex.

Editors' Note: A post-"Obsession" story.  This is the gen version of a previously published slash story, "Return to the Ashes."  The original version of the gen story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #18, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors.  When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than 6 months, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels was the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective!  Resistance was futile.  So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane.  Story lasted edited 1-2-2015.  Art by Shiloh.

Chris Larabee walked swiftly and purposefully along the boardwalk in Four Corners.  Many of the people he passed smiled or nodded at him in greeting, but he didn't notice any of them, lost in his own worry.  When he reached the bat-wing doors of the saloon, he shoved them open and stalked inside, glancing purposely around.

Ezra Standish was seated at his usual table, playing poker with three other men, two of whom Chris didn't recognize, and the gunslinger's eyes narrowed slightly.  Crossing to the table, Larabee interrupted the gambler's small talk, asking him, "You seen Vin?"

Ezra blinked, momentarily taken aback by the abrupt interruption, but the gunslinger's tone demanded an immediate reply.  "No, not since this morning, I'm afraid," he replied.  "He was leaving with Mr. Sanchez; they planned to engage in odious labor on that monstrosity called a church."

"How long you been playing?"

Ezra knew what Larabee was really asking:  "Have these men been here all morning?"

"Since we opened," the gambler assured him.

"Thanks," Chris said, then turned and strode out again.

Ezra watched the swinging doors for a moment, wondering what had their usually calm leader in such a state, but then he turned his attention back to the other players, smiling and saying, "Well, gentlemen, where were we?"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris headed directly to the church, where he found Josiah sitting on the roof, whitewashing the short bell tower that finally topped the newly-shingled roof.  He paused, tilted his head back and shouted, "Vin here?"

The former priest stopped his work and turned so he could look down at Chris.  "Nope; left about an hour ago," he said.

"Know where he was going?"

"Left with young Thomas Carter.  Thomas busted his thumb with the hammer while he was helpin' us, and Vin took him over to see Nathan; haven't seen him since."

"Appreciate it," Chris called up.

"Anytime."  Josiah watched the gunslinger disappear around the corner, then turned back to his work, humming softly under his breath.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Climbing the steps to Nathan's clinic, Chris tried to fight off the icy coldness that had settled around his heart.  Something was wrong, but he wasn't sure what.  Not that it really mattered.  He had quickly come to trust his feelings when it came to Vin Tanner, and right now his gut was telling him his friend was in mortal danger.

Reaching the landing at the top of the stairs, Chris paused, looking out over the portion of the town he could see from the second story vantage point, but there was nothing out of place, and nothing unusual going on.  Shaking his head, he turned and walked to the door of the clinic.  He knocked once and stepped inside.

Nathan looked up from the medical book Ezra had given him for Christmas, concern immediately springing into his dark eyes.  "Somebody hurt?" he asked, snapping the book closed and starting to stand.

Chris waved him back into his chair.  "No, everybody's fine, Nathan.  I'm just lookin' for Vin.  Josiah said he brought Tommy Carter over here?"

The healer nodded.  "Yeah, 'bout an hour ago.  Thumb was bruised real good; probably lose the nail, but he didn't break any bones.  I sent Tommy home with Vin."

"Know where he planned to go after that?" Chris asked, feeling the coldness squeeze his heart a little tighter, making it pound harder in his chest.

"Don't rightly know," Nathan replied, thinking.  "I saw Vin headed in the direction of the jail a while ago.  Buck and JD were out on the porch, arguing 'bout one thing or another."

Chris nodded, a small smile lifting the corners of his mouth.  Buck and JD were always arguing about one thing or another.  "Thanks."

"You want me to go lookin' for him?"

"No," Larabee said, shaking his head, "I'll find him."

Nathan nodded and watched the man leave, then he opened the book again, but hesitated, considering helping out anyway, then he changed his mind; Larabee didn't like them butting into his business.  He found where he'd left off and went back to reading.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It sounded like the argument Nathan had overheard earlier was still going on as Chris approached the jail, but the two peacekeepers had taken it inside the building.  The tones were friendly enough, so the gunslinger knew it was most likely just Buck ribbing the younger man about one thing or other.

Reaching the door, Chris paused again, turning to check along the street, hoping he might spot Vin, but the tracker was nowhere to be seen.  He sighed softly and willed the panic he was starting to feel to subside.

Stepping into the jail, Larabee was immediately asked, "Chris, who do you think's prettier, Norah Carson or Hattie Hawkes?"

Of course, he should have known, they were arguing about women – again.  Ignoring Buck's question, Chris asked, "Know where Vin is?"

"Nope," JD replied first.  "But he left just a little while ago."

"Said something about gettin' something out of his wagon.  Think it was for Josiah," Buck offered.  "Something up, stud?"

"Not sure," Chris replied, his brow furrowing.  He turned and left before he could be drawn into their conversation.

Back out on the boardwalk, Chris ignored the buzz of discussion still coming from inside the jail and scanned the street again.  Then, with a heavier sigh, he headed for Vin's wagon.

Halfway there he realized he should have told the others to have Tanner meet him back at the saloon if they saw him, but it was too late for that now.  He knew they would tell Vin he was looking for him, and the tracker would know to check the saloon.

A few moments later, the gunslinger reached the wagon, but Vin wasn't there.  "Damn," Chris hissed.

He stepped up and checked the back of canvas-covered wagon, just to make sure the tracker wasn't inside, but he already knew he wasn't.  "Where the hell are you?" he asked softly.

He leaned against the rough wood, trying to convince himself that Vin was perfectly fine, just busy with whatever had taken him away from the wagon, but his gut kept telling him that wasn't true; Vin was in trouble.

As he pushed away from the wagon to leave, something caught Larabee's eye and he leaned in closer, peering at the wood.  He reached out, pressing his finger into a small patch of something dark and moist.  He stared at the substance on his fingertip, smearing it over his skin with his thumb.  It was blood.  Vin's blood, he was sure of it.

A chill wracked the gunslinger's body even as his heart began to pound wildly in his chest, making it almost impossible for him to breathe.  His vision narrowed as he turned and headed back to the jail at a jog, his focus now completely set.

Chris wasn't sure how he knew, but he was sure someone had attacked Vin, hitting him over the head and rendering him unconscious; but why?

Storming into the jail, he barked, "Get the others and meet me at Vin's wagon.  Now!"

Buck and JD exchanged worried looks, but they immediately scrambled to their feet to do as Larabee had asked.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was no more than ten minutes before the five peacekeepers had all joined Larabee at the rear of Vin's wagon.  Chris showed them the blood smear, then pointed out the disturbed tracks in the dirt on the ground, suggesting a small scuffle had taken place.

"You think somebody took Vin?" Buck asked the gunslinger, looking decidedly worried.

Chris nodded.

"Who?" JD asked him.  "A bounty hunter?"

"Could be," Larabee replied.

"But you don't think so," Josiah replied, his gaze on the gunslinger intense.  Larabee's tone had suggested he had another explanation in mind.

Chris shrugged.  "I'm not sure what to think just yet, Josiah.  I just know he's missing."

"What would you suggest we do?" Ezra asked him.

Chris hesitated a moment, then said, "We go looking for him.  If we all take a different direction and get some of the local farmers who can track to help us, we ought to be able to pick up his trail pretty quickly."

"If there's one to find," Buck said.  "Depends on who took him, Chris."

"Vin'll leave us a trail, I'm sure of that," Larabee assured them.  "Get your gear together; meet me at the livery in half an hour."

The others nodded, each hurrying away to gather what they needed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Two hours later, riding along one of the trails leading roughly due east, Chris' gaze swept the ground, looking for some sign from Vin, but he found nothing, and the farther east he rode, the more certain he became that this wasn't the right direction.

He wasn't sure to be glad about that or not.  It did tell him that, whoever had Vin, it wasn't likely a bounty hunter, who would be taking him back to Texas to face a murder charge.

So who did have him?  And where had Tanner been taken?

Chris huffed and shifted in his saddle, half-angry and half-scared, a combination he didn't enjoy in the slightest.  Then, with a resolute sigh, he reined his gelding back the way he'd come and urged the horse to a lope.  Someone would have news for him – they had to.  He just hoped it would be in time.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Back in Four Corners, Chris sat alone in the saloon, waiting for the rest of the Seven to make it back to town.  Buck, Nathan, and Josiah had already returned, none of them having found anything worthwhile.

Larabee slowly turned the glass holding his whiskey in circles on the tabletop, but he didn't drink it.  Instead, he stared into the dark amber liquid, trying to divine Vin's location by sheer stubbornness alone.  Unfortunately, it didn't work.

Chris looked up when the doors swung inward and Ezra stepped inside, chasing the trail dust off his fancy red jacket with the edge of his hand.

"Ezra!" the gunslinger snapped.

The man jumped slightly, his head snapping up.  "Ah, Mr. Larabee.  News."

"You found a trail?"

"I believe so, yes."  The gambler walked forward as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wadded up piece of cloth.  When he reached the table, he shook it out.  It was Vin's bandanna.

"Where did you find it?" Chris demanded, his gaze locked on the piece of material, the icy grip of fear squeezing his heart again.

"Near the trail to Eagle Bend," Ezra said.

"Eagle Bend?" Buck echoed.  "But that don't make no sense.  A bounty hunter or a lawman is gonna take him east, back to Texas."

"Perhaps they determined Mr. Tanner would be too disagreeable on the trail and plan to hand him over to the sheriff in Eagle Bend," Ezra offered reasonably.

"Red Rock would be closer," Josiah countered, Buck and Nathan nodding their agreement.

Chris pushed his drink away and stood.  "I'm headin' for Eagle Bend.  You boys wait for JD to get back.  If he found anything, follow up on it.  If not, head out tomorrow and meet me in Eagle Bend."

The peacekeepers nodded and watched as Chris stalked out of the saloon.

"This situation has our Mr. Larabee exceedingly upset," Ezra noted a little curiously.

"A friend is missing," Josiah replied softly, his own concern clear, "that's reason enough to worry."

"Indeed, it is, Mr. Sanchez," the gambler agreed.  "However, I'm unaccustomed to such a display of mental anguish from our Mr. Larabee."

Buck nodded his agreement, but then added quietly, "Vin's filled up a part of Chris I didn't think could get filled; made him more of a whole man again.  I hope we can find him.  A man shouldn't have t' face loss like that more than once in his life."

"Amen, brother," Josiah agreed, reaching out to capture the abandoned glass of whiskey and tossing back the contents.

"A lot can happen in a day," Nathan said casually, but he looked at each of the men pointedly.

"Which is why we'll be leavin' as soon as JD gets back," Buck told him.

The others nodded their approval of the altered plan.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

On the trail to Eagle Bend, Chris allowed his mind to wander, even as his gaze continually scanned the hilltops and the tree lines for any signs of potential trouble.  He had a feeling he was being watched, followed, but he hadn't caught sight of whoever it might be.

His thoughts drifted to Vin, and as whenever he thought about the bounty hunter, he almost always remembered the moment they had first met, their gazes locking across the dusty street in Four Corners.  In that moment, Chris had known he'd found a man who would be a friend.  What he hadn't known at the time was that Vin would become more than just his friend.  He wasn't sure he could describe their relationship with words, but he knew his feelings for Vin were closer to his feelings for family than they were for, say, Buck, whom he also counted as a close friend.

His relationship with Vin really made no sense to him, so Chris never stayed with the thought for long.  But he did know that, since Vin had entered his life, a part of himself the gunslinger had thought long dead had come back to life, at least a little bit.  He'd learned, once again, how it felt to be happy.  And that was one hell of a feat as far as Larabee was concerned.

It was as if his emotions had been a parched, dead field, and Vin's arrival was nothing less than a long-awaited spring rain that had healed the land of his soul and finally allowed it to begin to grow again, and for that he would be forever grateful to the man.

Where the hell are you, Vin?

Ella, was the almost immediate reply, echoing in his mind, and Chris jerked back on the rains with surprise, bringing his black gelding to an abrupt stop.  The horse tossed its head, air puffing from its nostrils in irritation, but Larabee didn't even hear it.


Ella Gains has Vin.  As soon as he thought it, he knew it was true.

"That bitch," he breathed softly, jaw tightening.  Tapping his heels to the horse's flanks, he urged the black into a fast lope, determined to reach Eagle Bend as quickly as possible.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Riding down the dusty main street in Eagle Bend, Chris' gaze shifted from one side of the street to the other, looking for the woman who'd had his wife and son killed, and who, he was sure, now held his closest friend hostage.  The locals quickly scurried out of the gunslinger's path, his narrowed eyes and angry expression more than enough to frighten even the most stalwart among them.

Chris pulled up at the saloon and swung down, wrapping his reins around the hitching post.  Stepping into the dimly lit building, he quickly scanned the patrons, then stalked to the bar.  "Whiskey," he said.

The bartender gave him a quick once-over, then poured him a drink, asking as he set it down in front of him, "You be Chris Larabee?"

"Depends," he replied evenly, but he felt his chest tighten in the now-familiar cold grip of fear.

The man turned, pulling an envelope free from where it had been tucked under the edge of the large mirror hanging on the wall behind the bar.  When he turned back to face the gunslinger he said, "If'n ya are, then this is for you."  He sat the envelope down on the bartop and slid it over in front of Chris, who reached for it, but the bartender didn't release it.  Their eyes met.

"I'm Larabee," the gunslinger stated darkly, the threat in his eyes earnest.

The bartender held his gaze for a moment, then nodded and released the letter.

Chris picked up the envelope, his hands trembling just slightly as he opened it and removed the letter he found inside.  He carefully unfolded the paper.  Before he read a single word, he knew it was from Ella – the look of her handwriting had been burned into his memory by her last letter.


I know you might be angry with me right now, but I know once we have had a chance to talk, I can make you understand how much I love you.  Everything I have done, I have done for us, for our love, which means more to me than I can possibly say.  I dream of the day we will be together again; I long to hold you in my arms and lose myself in your passion.  I dream of that moment each night, and I ache for you.

Our love was meant to be, Chris.  It is a gift from God, and you cannot deny it forever.  I know.  I tried myself, but I could not do it.

Go out to my ranch.  You will find what you need there.

Just remember, Chris, I do love you, so very, very much.  And I am doing this is for us.

Forever Yours,

Ella Gains Larabee

Chris reread the letter, then folded it up and returned it to the envelope.  He stuck that inside his pocket and reached for the whiskey, downing it in a single gulp.  He set the glass down with a bang, then fished into his pocket and paid the bartender.  Without another word, he turned and left.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was just after nightfall when Chris reached what had been a large, two-story ranch house.  He stopped along the side of the road, staring at the darkened remains of the house for several minutes before he urged his horse forward.  He had asked Vin to burn it down, and the tracker had done as he'd asked.  All that was left now was the barn and the bullet-riddled bunk house.

He dismounted at the barn and secured the black to the corral railing before walking to the doors and reaching for the board that held the doors shut, but he stopped before he grabbed it, a cold chill snaking its way down his back.  His breath came faster and he felt the sweat beginning to run down his sides.

He had lain with Ella in that house.  He had found the horrible evidence of her madness there.  He had ended up getting shot and, later, while he was still healing from that wound, he had returned here with Vin.  Had Ella been here?  Had she seen them, seen Vin burn the house?

He lifted the board free and the barn doors swung open.  He stepped inside, his gun in his hand, just in case.

Stopping in the darkness, he listened, but there were no sounds to warn him that someone was there, waiting for him.  Inching farther into the building, he found a small table with a lamp sitting on it.  He lit the wick and peered around the space, still expecting someone to appear, but there was no one there.

The lamp in one hand, his Colt in the other, he carefully searched the barn, checking each of the stalls, one by one.  The space was completely empty.  No horses, no milk cow, no goats, pigs, or chickens.  Maybe Vin had turned them loose, or maybe Ella had come back and done it, although it found that hard to imagine.

He sighed, shaking his head.  As much as he hated her for what she had done, there was some part of him that felt pity for the mad woman.  But that pity wouldn't stop him from killing her when he found her.

Leaving the empty barn he walked over to the bunk house.  He could still see the bullet holes in the wooden boards that made up the walls, compliments of Handsome Jack.  He forced himself to open the door and step inside, but what he saw lying on the ground brought him up short and he froze, his gaze fixed on the sight.  Vin's hide jacket was carefully laid out on the floor.

Chris sucked in a sharp breath.  She had been here.  She must have seen them, seen Vin burn the house.  And in that instant Larabee knew Vin was in more danger than he'd ever guessed; more than any bounty hunter or lawman could ever pose.  If Ella saw Vin as a rival for his affections, then Tanner was as good as dead.  And Chris knew it wouldn't be a quick or a painless death.

He returned his gun to his holster and set the lamp on a rickety table.  Then, reaching out, he picked up the jacket to get a better look at it.  Thankfully, there were no holes, and no bloodstains.

Under the tracker's jacket he found another piece of paper.  He picked it up and unfolded the page to find a hand-drawn map.  And at the bottom Ella had added:

If you want him back alive, come alone before the 10th.  If you come later, all that will be left of him will be food for the scavengers.  We have to talk, Chris.  I have to make you understand that our love is too important to be tossed aside. 

Still Forever Yours,

Ella Gains Larabee.

Chris studied the map, trying to decide how long it was going to take him to reach the indicated location.  He decided on two, maybe three days, if he wanted his horse in any condition for a fast retreat.  But that would still put him there a day or two ahead of Ella's deadline – hopefully enough time for him to come up with a plan to get Vin out alive, and in one piece.

Pushing past the fear that knotted in his gut, he stood.  There were several things he needed to do before he tried to grab a few hours sleep, and then he would head out again at first light.  First, he rolled up Vin's hide coat and fastened it onto his saddle.  Then he went out and took care of his gelding, giving him some extra grain from the stores still in the barn.  Then, going back inside the bunkhouse, he searched his saddlebags until he found a wanted poster.  Using burned bits of wood from the house, he copied the map and left a note for the others.

Then, just to be sure they got the news, he copied the map into the dirt floor of the bunk house and the barn.

All that was left now was to get some rest.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris' dreams were haunted by images of Sarah and Adam burning, Ella standing close by, laughing.  Or Ella, mounting him in her bed while beyond the window he could hear is wife and son screaming as they burned to death in the cabin.

Vin was there, too, just at the edges, like he was looking for Chris, but hadn't been able to find him.  Finally, the tracker stepped into the Ella's bedroom, walking over to Chris, who was lying in the bed, but somehow unable to move.

Tanner reached out to help him rise, but before Chris could reach out and take the man's proffered hand, Ella stood up beside the bed.  She was holding a long-bladed knife over her head and she plunged it down, striking Vin in the center of his back.  The tracker arched, shoulder blades pinching, his expression contorting with pain.  Ella pulled the blade free and struck a second time, this time sinking the blade into Vin's chest.  The man's blue eyes went wide, his pain-filled gaze locked on the gunslinger's.

"Chris," he gasped, his expression begging Larabee to help him.  But the blond was still frozen in the bed, unable to move to stop the attack.  He watched as the spark slowly left Vin's eyes, his lifeless body falling to the floor.

He looked up at Ella, who was smiling at him.  "Why?" he managed to ask her.

"I love you, Chris," she said, reaching out to gently caress his cheek, the bloody knife still dripping in her other hand.  "You don't need anyone but me."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris woke with a half-stifled yell, his hand groping for his gun.  When his fingers closed around the butt, he realized it had been a dream, just a dream.  He was sitting on one of the bunkhouse beds, panting for breath.

He wasn't in Ella's bedroom.  She hadn't returned.  There was no blood.  Vin wasn't dead.

He reached up and ran a shaking hand over his face, then swiped the sweat off on his leg.  When he had caught his breath, he cursed softly.  Glancing at the window, he checked for the first hint of dawn, but it was still dark.

He levered up and got ready to leave anyway, unable to stay at the ranch one second longer.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Two days later, Chris knew the map had been purposefully deceptive.  The terrain through which he traveled was rough and treacherous, making his progress slower than he'd estimated.  And, to add to his annoyance, he was now positive someone was shadowing him, although whenever he tried to force the man to reveal himself, it never worked.  But he could feel the stare on the back of his neck as he rode along.

Ella might have hired someone to watch him all along.

She had to have known he'd head straight to her ranch once he'd received her letter at the saloon, and that he'd leave the following morning for the location she'd marked out.  But she knew better than he did how long it would take him to reach the spot, and it wasn't going to be two days.  It would be three, if not a little longer.

He fumed silently.  She wasn't going to give him an opportunity to arrive early, sneak in, and free Vin.  She was holding all the cards, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it.

For a crazy woman, she was damned clever.  And that scared him.  Because, he knew, he really had no idea how he was going to find Vin when he reached the spot marked on the map, but however it was, he was certain he wasn't going to like it.  He just prayed that the man was still alive.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was nearing dusk on the 9th when Chris arrived at the designated location.  He dismounted and tied the black's reins to a low tree bough, then moved closer to the small cabin he'd spotted for a better look.

Lying on the top of a short rise, hidden in the darkness and low-hanging boughs of pine trees that grew right up to the edge, he stared down into the small clearing where a cabin and small barn stood.  The structures were old enough that the sun and weather had darkened the wood, and warped some of the planks making up the cabin's front porch.

In the clearing between the cabin and the barn, a large fire burned in a pit dug into the ground, casting dark orange shadows over the two buildings, and the one person he could see:  Vin Tanner.

The tracker was naked and dirty, but the blond could still see several large bruises on the man's arms, ribs, and legs in the light cast by the flames.  There was also what appeared to be dried blood – or maybe mud, Chris hoped – on the tracker's chin.  His wrists were shackled, as were his ankles, although Chris could see that a length of chain, attached at one ankle and secured to a stake, gave him enough slack to move around the open space.  At the moment, however, Vin was lying on his side, on the grass-covered ground, probably trying to sleep, but it was so cold Larabee doubted that would be possible for the naked man.  The fire was probably all that had saved his life the last couple of nights, if he'd been staked out then like he was now.

Chris cursed silently.

Then, as he watched, the tracker sat up and inched as close to the flames as he could safely get.  Then, he turned his back to the heat and Chris got a good look at the welts on the man's skin in the firelight.  The gunslinger felt his gut knot at the sight.

What else had she done to him?  Given Ella's madness, he wasn't really sure he wanted to know.

At least Tanner appeared to be whole, and relatively unharmed.

Getting Tanner free, however, was going to be even more difficult than he'd expected.  There was no way he could reach the man without being seen, and if he was right about someone following him, then Ella and whoever was helping her might already know he was here.

He sighed softly, wishing he had brought one of the others along.  With a diversion he might be able to go in and get Vin free, but it was too late to worry about that now; he was on his own.

Frustration caused his fingers to curl into the cold, damp needles that padded the ground beneath the trees, and a sharp edge bit into his skin.  He jerked his hand back, then dug into the needles and pulled out a small pine cone.  He smiled.

Crawling out from under the boughs, he rose onto his knees and lobed the pinecone into the clearing.  It hit the ground next to the fire and rolled to a stop just past Vin's foot.

The tracker had no outward reaction, but a few moments later he scooted around to face the flames again.

Chris dug through the needles until he found another cone and lobed that one at Tanner as well.  It landed in the flames, cracking and popping.

Vin's chin lifted and Larabee saw that one of the tracker's eyes had been blackened, the corners of his mouth torn.  So it was dried blood on his chin.

Ella hadn't done that, or inflicted the bruises on the tracker's body, Chris guessed, so she definitely had some help, but how many?

Tanner's gaze swept the ridge behind and above the cabin, but Chris knew the tracker couldn't see him.  A moment later, however, Vin's gaze seemed to pin him, and he raised his shackled hands to touch the brim of an invisible hat.

Larabee shivered.  How the hell could he see him?  At least anyone watching from the cabin would think Vin had done nothing more than push the hair off his forehead.  Chris offered a grin, just in case the man could actually see him.  It wasn't much, but at least Vin would know someone was out there now, and Chris was sure the tracker would know it was him.

Larabee forced his attention away from the captive and studied the cabin and nearby barn, trying to determine if anyone was watching, waiting for him to try and free the tracker.  Several minutes later he saw the flare of a match being lit just inside the barn door and, a moment later, the glow on the end of a cheroot.

Someone was definitely there, watching Vin, who had laid down again.  Were they waiting for him to make a move?  He wasn't sure, and it didn't matter.  With guards that close, he didn't dare sneak into the small clearing.

If someone was watching from inside the barn, it was a good bet someone else was watching from the cabin, but, if they were, they weren't being as careless.

Ella was holding all the cards.  There was nothing he could do now except wait for dawn and see what she had planned for them.

With a sigh, he turned up the collar of his jacket and settled back against the trunk of the pine tree to try and get some sleep.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Chris.  Chris, I know you're out there, darlin'."

Larabee jerked awake.  Turning from where he'd been leaning against the trunk of one of the pine trees, he stared down into the clearing.  The fire had burned down to nearly nothing, and a wagon had been rolled out from the barn and positioned in the middle of the clearing.

Vin stood at the back of the wagon, his arms spread wide.  The tracker was still shackled, but the chains leading to his wrists were now secured to the rear wheels of the wagon.  Vin himself was bent over the end of the wagon.

Ella stood behind the naked man, a brass-handled quirt in her hand, the braided-leather lash dangling menacingly.

"Chris?" she called again, gently lifting and laying the lash across Vin's back.

Larabee held his tongue, his heart beginning to pound wildly in his chest.  Did she intend to beat the man to death while he watched?

She flicked the quirk, the lash biting into Vin's skin with a sharp snap!  The tracker grunted and jerked, but he was held too tightly to fight.

"I know you're out there, Chris.  Let's not make this too hard on your friend."  She waited a moment for him to answer, then the lash snapped a second time, making Vin jerk again and raising another welt.

The gunslinger lay motionless, frantically studying the area.  He could see three men now, one in the barn, another at one of the cabin windows, and a third standing near three trees that grew between the two buildings.  They were each holding rifles.

"Chris, please, don't make me kill him, and I will kill him, if I have to – if you force me to.  You know how much I love you, don't you, Chris?  You know what I'll do in order to have you in my life forever?"  She pulled her arm back and brought the quirt down two times – hard and fast.  Vin arched.

"Ella!" he called, standing, his gun in his hand.  "Stop."

She looked up and smiled.  "It's so good to see you again, Chris.  I've missed you so much."

"Leave him alone," Chris said, his gaze locked on hers.

"Come down, Chris, please," she replied.  "There's so much we need to talk about."

"We have nothing to talk about!" Chris yelled.  "Let him go."

Ella looked up at him, her expression pained.  "Nothing?  We have everything to talk about – the wedding, where we'll live…"  She struck Vin again.


She stopped.  "Chris!" she wailed at him.  "I love you!  Don't you understand?  I love you!"  She began striking Vin over and over.

"No!" Chris cried.  "Ella, stop.  Please."

She looked up at him, tears rolling down her cheeks, but she stopped.  Reaching out, she stroked her fingers down the tracker's red back like she was petting a large cat.  "We were meant to be together, Chris.  Don't you understand that?  You and me, forever."

"No," Chris admitted, fighting to keep his anger and hatred in check, "no, I don't understand," he said, starting down the hill toward the clearing.  "But I'm willing to talk; just let him go."

Ella looked down at the tracker, who had collapsed on the wagon bed, gulping air like a landed fish.  "I saw him," she snarled, this time raking her fingernails down the tracker's back, making him jerk in anguish, "He burned my home!  Mine!  We made love in that bed, Chris!"

"I know, I'm sorry," he said, moving closer, his gun still ready.  "But he's no threat to you, Ella."

She looked from Vin to Chris and back again.  She spat on the tracker, then looked up at Chris as he walked over to stand next to the wagon.

Larabee glanced down at Vin, their gazes locking for a brief moment.  Vin's was full of fear, but it wasn't for himself, it was for Chris, and the gunslinger knew it.

"You said you wanted to talk to me," he said to Ella, still managing to keep his voice gentle.  "Well, I'm here.  Let him go and we'll talk."

The three men who had been covering Larabee stepped out from their places, their rifles trained on him.  Chris' gaze flickered to each of the three.  Two hung back a short ways, but the third, the biggest, came up behind Ella and glowered at the gunslinger over her head.

Ella glanced over her shoulder at the man, and then looked back to the gunslinger.  "I told you, Chris, we're meant to be together.  Ever since we met that first time, it was destined to be.  I want you to love me…"

Chris swallowed, his mouth going dry.  Ella saw the hesitation and the revulsion in Larabee's eyes and her own eyes narrowed dangerously.  She turned, reaching to the man standing behind her and pulling him up next to her.

Larabee tried not to glower at the hulk, but he could feel the danger radiating from him, even if he didn't know what form it would take.

Ella pressed herself along the man's side, her hand reaching up to stroke across his chest, then it dropped to cup his hidden manhood in her palm.  "James is such a good man," she purred.  "He's taken very good care of me – like you should have, Chris.  But he knows what to do with your Nancy-boy here.  Would you like him to show you?"

Chris' heart leaped in his chest; even she would stoop that low, would she?  "Ella, let him go.  We'll go inside and talk, or whatever you want."

Still clinging to James, Ella reached out and lightly stroked Vin's buttocks.  "James is a big man, Chris, why, I think he might just tear your Nancy-boy in half if he takes him."  She laughed.

Chris saw the man's growing arousal, and the way he leered at Vin.  He couldn't allow the man to rape the tracker, but he wasn't at all sure how to stop him, either.  Larabee glanced quickly at the other two hired guns, but they still had their rifles held at the ready.  There was no way he could kill both of them, and James, before one of them killed him or Vin.

He met the woman's gaze.  "Ella, please, let him go… for us."

Her eyes gleamed and she stepped away from James, moving back to the tracker and leaning over his back, pressing her groin against his naked ass.  "For us?" she asked hopefully.

Larabee nodded, unable to trust his voice not to betray his true feelings.  She smiled and reached down to fondle Vin, who whimpered softly, his body shuddering with revulsion.  "If I let him go, you'll stay with me?"

"Chris, no," Vin wheezed.

Ella's fingers curled tightly, forcing a low whine from the tracker.

"Back off," Chris snarled at Ella.

She smiled at Larabee, but took a step back.  "Show Mr. Larabee what a stallion you are, James," she purred, her gaze on Chris.

The big man grinned and laid his rifle down in the back of the wagon.  Then he unbuckled his belt and opened his pants.  Reaching in, he freed himself.  He was huge.

"Do you want to watch James fuck your Nancy-boy?"

The burning pleasure in the big man's eyes increased as he stepped up behind Vin, then reached out and squeezed the tracker's ass.  Tanner tried to jerk away, but there was no place for him to go and his movements only seemed to excite the big man.

"Ella, for God's sake, don't do this," Chris pleaded.

Ella smiled as she glanced over to watch James rub himself on the smaller man.  Her gaze remained on James and Vin as she asked, "What will you give me, to stop this, Chris."

"What do you want?"

"Will you give me anything I want?" she asked.

"Chris, no!" Vin barked.

"Yes!" Larabee replied.  "Just stop this – now!"

James had reached down and grabbed his shaft.

"James," she snapped.

The big man grunted and looked at her.


For a moment it looked like he might not listen to her, but then he grunted again and took a step back, his hand jerking up and down a few times before he came across Vin's back and ass.  When he was through, James tucked himself back into his pants, buttoned them up, and grabbed up his gun.

"Take this trash to the cabin," Ella directed the man.

James unshackled Vin's ankles and cut the tracker's hands free, leading him to the barn.

"Now, put your gun down," Ella commanded, and Chris obeyed.  Once he was unarmed, she stepped up next to him and pressed herself along the side of his body.  "Let's go inside, shall we?"

Chris walked with her to the cabin, but glanced over at the barn, seeing that James had tied Vin into a chair.

"He'll be left alone," Chris snarled, green eyes flashing dangerously.

Ella nodded.  "James!" she called.

The big man looked at her.

"Leave him be."

The big man backed away from Tanner.

"There, see?  That's wasn't so hard, was it?" she asked Larabee, reaching out to take his hand and lead him into the cabin.  "Take your clothes off," she directed.

Larabee looked and saw she was doing the same.  He swallowed hard, but forced himself to undress.

"Get on the bed," she told him.

"I thought you said you wanted to talk to me," he replied, trying to buy time as he climbed onto the bed.

"Oh, we'll talk, Chris, after I show you how much I love you."  She called, "Manolo!"

One of the other men stepped into the cabin holding four short pieces of rope.

"There's no need for that," Chris assured her.  "Besides, I can do so much more if I'm free."

She smiled.  "That's what I'm afraid of, darlin'."

"I give you my word," he told her.

Ella considered that a moment, then nodded.  "All right, but if you try anything, anything at all, I'll give your Nancy-boy to James, and I promise you, when James is through with him, there won't be enough left to bury."

Chris nodded his understanding.

"Leave us," Ella instructed her other man.  "You and the others keep watch for their friends."

Manolo nodded, then, with a final glance at the blond, he turned and left.

Ella, now naked herself, walked over to the bed, standing beside Chris.  Reaching out, she ran her fingers through his hair, then over his shoulder, her fingertips seeking out his nipple and rubbing it lightly.  "I want you so much, Chris."

Her fingers returned to his hair and, wrapping her fingers in it, she jerked his head back and forced a kiss on his lips.

She laughed and eased up onto the bed, straddling his groin.

"Don't you want me," she challenged him, the blond completely flaccid.  She eased between Chris' legs, then leaned over and rubbed her breasts over his chest until their lips finally met for a long, grinding kiss while her fingers went to work on him.  When she finally pulled back, she smiled.  "You do want me."

"Glad you think so," he replied, reaching up to grab her slender waist, but she raised her hand to stop him.

"Remember what'll happen to your Nancy-boy if you try anything."

"I just want to show you what a real man can do."

She smiled and nodded.

He grabbed her waist, lifting her off him and pulling her down next to him.  Then he rolled up on his elbow so he was above her and leaned over to kiss her again, one of his hands stroking her breast as he did.

Ella moaned with pleasure, her hips making small circles.

Chris continued to kiss her, his hand sweeping down from her breast to stroke between her thighs.  She opened her legs for him.

Larabee teased her, playing with her until she was writhing under him.  Then he broke the kiss, his lips coming down on her nipple, suckling her as his fingers sank into her over and over, making her body jerk mightily as wave after wave of pleasure broke over her.

Before the pleasure subsided, he was straddling her chest, her arms pinned under his knees, and his hands were around her throat, squeezing.

She tried to call for James, but the words were trapped in her constricted throat.  Her eyes rounded with fear for a moment, then glazed with pleasure and she was climaxing again, her body jerking even as she lost consciousness.  As soon as she went limp Chris jerked his hands away from the woman and hastily climbed off the bed.

He dressed, then searched the cabin, finding a small Derringer.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Damn it, Ella, what the hell are you doing?" the guards heard Chris bellow.

The three men exchanged glances, snickering under their breaths.  A loud howl from the blond caught James' attention and he took a step toward the cabin.

"Ya know the rules, Jim," Monolo said, reaching out to stop him.

"Can't help it," he replied, shaking off the man's grasp.  "That blond fella makes my blood run hot.  Gotta see what she's doin' to him."

The other two men shook their heads as James started for the cabin.

At the door he paused to listen, and as soon as he heard another loud moan from Larabee he pushed the door open and stepped inside.  He froze at the sight that met him.  Ella was sitting on the blond's lap, her knees hooked over the arms of the chair, her arms wrapped around his neck.  His hips were pounding.  He grinned.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris waited until the big man's gaze was locked on Ella, then brought the Derringer up and fired, striking him between the eyes.  James grunted and dropped to his knees, the rifle falling from his lifeless hands.

The bond threw Ella's body to the floor and grabbed for his Colt as the other two men burst through the door.

Larabee shot Monolo, then the third man, their rifles too unwieldy in the close quarters of the cabin to be effective.

"Chris!" he heard Vin yell from the barn.

Chris quickly checked the three men, kicking their weapons away before he scrambled over them and made it outside.  He bolted to the barn, failing to see the last man, who was hiding in the shadows.

He fired at Chris, who dove to the ground and fired back.  The man got off two more shots before Larabee killed him, one of the two knocking Vin over.

Chris scrambled to the tracker's side, untying him, Vin's hands going immediately to his side.  "Let me see," he snapped.

Vin let the gunslinger pull his hands away from the wound.

"Just a graze," Chris told him.  "You were lucky."

"Still hurts like hellfire," Vin gasped.

"Yeah, I remember," Larabee replied dryly.  He helped Vin to his feet and half-carried him to the cabin.  He stopped at the bed, his knees beginning to shake.  "No!" he cried.  "Damn it!"

Vin slumped onto the bed, struggling to stay sitting up.  "What is it?"

"She's gone!  The goddamned bitch is gone!"

Vin trembled.  "Bitch has more lives 'n a damn cat," he said.

Rage washing over him, Chris tilted his head back and roared, "Bitch!"

The tracker began to shiver violently, his teeth chattering, and Chris got him into the bed, then hurried to bolt the cabin door.  He grabbed the men's handguns and rifles, carrying them back to the bed and leaving them within easy reach, then dragged the bodies outside and tossed them into the fire pit to burn later.  Returning to the cabin, he rummaged through the dresser drawers, deciding to use one of Ella's shirts to bind Vin's wound.  A few minutes later that was done.

"You all right," he asked.

"Reckon I'll live," Vin said just before he slipped into a light sleep.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

When Vin woke next, he was lying in the bed, his side bound up.  He glanced around the cabin, finding Chris standing at the wood stove, dressed and stirring a pot of something that smelled wonderful.

"About time you woke up," Larabee told him.

"How long I been sleepin'?"

"Almost two days."

"Two days?"  Vin sat up, but the immediate stitch of agony in his side forced him to lie right back down again.

"You stay right there, or you'll ruin all of Nathan's work."


Chris nodded.  "Yeah, the rest of 'em got here yesterday.  Nathan cleaned and stitched your wound and left me some powders you need to take three times a day."

"Ain't drinkin' nothin' that tastes worse 'n horse piss."

"You'll drink this, even if I have to sit on you and hold your nose 'til you open your mouth," Chris warned him.

Vin glowered at the blond for a moment, then sighed heavily and rolled his eyes.  After a moment he asked, "Where's the rest of 'em?"

"I sent them after Ella."

"Find her?"

Chris shook his head.  "No sign."

"Damn," Vin breathed.  He had expected no less; the damn woman was a witch.  "We headin' home now?"

Chris shook his head.  "Nathan said you need to rest for a couple more days, let that wound start to knit closed.  He and Buck are staying in Bent Copper, about half a day's ride northeast of here.  He'll be back tomorrow to take a look."

"Hell, Chris, I c'n ride."

"You stayin' here, Tanner."

"Fine, but I gotta get up; got things that need tendin' to."

Chris grinned and nodded.  "That's different.  Go do it."

Vin climbed gingerly from the bed and shuffled to the chamber pot to relieved himself.  When he was back in bed, he asked, "Whatcha cookin'?"


"Smells good."

And a few minutes later they were both eating.

Chris glanced over at the tracker between bites and asked, "Did she…?"

Vin shook his head.

"Or that big bastard?"

Another shake of the head.

"Never thought she'd come after you," Chris said, his tone apologetic.

Tanner shrugged.  "No different 'n her tryin' t' kill us at the ranch, I reckon."

"She'll try again," Chris warned him.  "You and the others."

Vin nodded.  "We'll just have t' be careful 'til we run her down."

Chris nodded, but he was worried.  What if she tried to burn the whole town down?  He wouldn't put it past her.

"Don't borrow trouble, Cowboy," Vin said, seeing the troubled expression on the blond's face.

The gunslinger shook his head.  "I'm startin' to think she's—"

"Ain't nothin' but a crazy woman, that's all.  We'll find her."

"Before someone else gets hurt?"

Vin didn't have an answer for that.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Three days later Chris walked Nathan out to his waiting horse.

"He's doin' good, real good," the healer said.  "Give him a couple more days, then he oughta be able to make it back to Four Corners without bringing on a fever, or tearing that wound open.  Take it slow on the way, ya hear?"

Chris nodded.  "Thanks, Nathan."

The black man grinned.  "It's gettin' to be a full time job, takin' care of you all, but don't you worry none, he's gonna be fine.  The infection's gone and the wound's knittin' up real good."

He looked from the healer to Buck.  "You two watch your backs."

Buck nodded.  "We will.  You two do the same."

Chris nodded as well, then watched the two men head out before he turned and headed back inside to see how Vin was doing.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"It's still early, we don't gotta stop in Eagle Bend," Vin offered a few days later as they rode through the countryside to avoid Ella's old ranch.

On their way back to Four Corners, Chris had been sure to keep the pace slow, but the tracker was getting stronger each day, and he was in a hurry to get home.

The gunslinger snorted softly.  "Home…  Never thought I'd use that word again."  But he had to admit that he'd come to think of Four Corners as home, as long as Vin and the others were there.

"Yeah, know what y' mean," Vin agreed.

"Once we find Ella, we need to take care of that price on your head."

Vin nodded his agreement, the recent encounter making it clear that his time to clear his name was limited.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A couple of hours later, the two men rode into Eagle Bend, stopping first for a meal, then heading to the hotel where they took a room and ordered a bath sent up.  While that was being done, they walked across the street to the saloon for a drink.

While they were working on their whiskeys, the sheriff found them.  "One of your men asked me to keep my ears open for any word on Ella Gains," he said as soon as he reached them.

Chris and Vin both looked up.

"What've you heard?" Larabee asked as casually as he could.

"Seems she just got married out near Tucson way; to a Spanish nobleman of all things, and that after he'd just met her."

Chris snorted.  "Well, I hope she's happy."

"Be hard not to be.  I hear the man's got more land and money than he knows what to do with.  Anyway, just thought you'd want t' hear."  With that the lawman turned and left.

The two men finished their drinks, then walked back to the hotel and climbed the stairs to their room.  The tub was waiting for them, steam curling off the surface of the hot water.

"You go first," Vin offered.

"No, I think you'd better go first.  It'll be cleaner, and Nathan said you need to keep that wound clean for a few more days."

The tracker nodded and carefully removed his clothes.  Once he was naked, he climbed into the hot water and carefully lowered himself, sucking in a sharp breath when the stitched wound finally got wet.  But once he was seated, he wasted no time scrubbing with the soap that had been left for them, even lathering his hair and dipping his head under the water to rinse it.  When he was done, he sat for a few minutes, letting the hot water ease his still-sore muscles, then climbed out and grabbed a towel, drying himself off while Chris stripped and climbed into the water himself.

Larabee sighed loudly, sinking down to his chin and just soaking in the still-hot water for a few minutes before he set to work, lathering himself up and washing his hair as well.

While Chris bathed, Vin borrowed the man's razor to shave the short beard that had grown out since he'd been kidnapped.  The tracker still carried the last shadows of the bruises on his skin, and his back was still crisscrossed with pale red marks, but overall he was healing up quickly.  The graze had closed, and besides the scar that was sure to be left behind, it was almost healed now as well.

Rinsing, Chris climbed out of the water, grabbed a towel of his own, and quickly dried off.  When he was done, he reached for his long johns and pulled them on, like Tanner had, then he shaved as well and climbed into the bed.

He'd thought Tanner was already asleep, but the tracker said, "She ain't gonna let this go, Chris, even married."

"I know."

"She knows y' tried t' kill her."


"Could get damned ugly."

"I expect it will," Chris agreed.

"Just have t' be ready."

"We'll be ready," Larabee promised.

Continues in A Piece at a Time

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